This post includes the sermon preached at Christ Church today…I wasn’t there, as I needed today to rest a little, to recuperate and to think about next Sunday, when I am preaching! Yesterday became a day of cleaning and admin, and this morning was a bit like that too. However, I have managed to cross all but one task off my To Do list, so I’m feeling very pleased with myself!
It was Lee, one of our members, who preached today. It’s a good sermon, and I thought you might like to read it:
Lent is about remembering where we are, as we are remined on Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We receive ashes to remind us that we are made for abundant life – and that death is part of the journey toward greater life. The season of Lent developed as an act of solidarity with those who were preparing to be baptized at the great Easter Vigil, and it became an opportunity for all the faithful to practice returning to the center, and being re-grounded in what is most essential.
Now into the third week of the Season of Lent, our Sunday Gospel prepares us to hear Lent’s call to repentance. Today’s reading is found in the chapters of Luke’s Gospel that describe Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. During this journey, Jesus teaches and heals. He also responds to those who question and challenge his authority and actions. Luke tells us that some among the crowds report to Jesus that there has been a massacre of Galileans by Pilate. The intention of the crowd seems to be to ask Jesus to explain why these people suffered. It was commonplace then, as it still can be now, to view people’s suffering as evidence of their sinfulness. Jesus challenges this interpretation. Those who were massacred were no more or less sinful than the ones who report the situation to Jesus. Jesus replies that even a fatal accident, a natural disaster, should not to be interpreted as punishment for sin.
But then Jesus goes on to say, “if you don’t repent, you’re going to die, too.” Many Christians (and non-Christians) still hear this as a great threat of retribution. It’s not. It IS the same reminder that the ashes bear – we’re all terminal, we all come into this world with a more or less fixed span of life, and yes, some of us do depart this life earlier than expected. What Jesus is saying is that life abundant or eternal life is to be found in turning back to what is most central. Know that you will die, and live as though this moment is eternally significant. Love God with all you are and all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus then continues with a parable about a barren fig tree. In this parable, we find an image of God’s patience and hopefulness as he prepares his Kingdom. God calls us to repent, and yet God is merciful. He delays punishment and tends to us so that we may yet bear fruit.
The fig tree is fruitless. The owner wants to cut it down – it’s useless. But the gardener counsels treatment and patience. He offers to treat the fruitlessness by digging and fertilizing. Digging around the tree will prune the roots, and stress the tree. That stress is a good thing because it creates something of a crisis. Usually it will reorient the energies of the tree toward bearing fruit rather than just growing more branches and leaves. Fruit trees and grapevines that aren’t ever pruned don’t produce much good quality fruit – they simply turn “weedy.” Digging around the tree will get rid of weeds competing for nutrients, and it will open up the soil structure so that water and nutrients can get to those roots. Adding fertilizer will ensure that the tree gets the nutrients it needs to produce fruit and not just more leaves.
So what might that mean for us? Digging around our roots means letting go of the unimportant. What might our roots be growing into? Are they seeking living water – or emptiness? This tree needs compost. It’s a reminder that the stuff we try hard to avoid, the messiness of incarnation, is absolutely essential to real life. We will not bear fruit or find life abundant unless we’re willing to encounter the smelly and the dirty and the lowly around us.
There’s another word for digging, root pruning, and manuring – repenting. They mean the same thing – letting go of what doesn’t produce fruit, drawing back from what isn’t life-giving, putting our energy into what is life-giving, and turning toward what is fruitful – in direct encounter with the presence of God all around us, and deep within us. What most of think of when we think repentance is stopping our naughtiness and being sorry so that we may be forgiven our sins. That isn’t it. Sin isn’t naughtiness. Sin really is about distance from God. Things are sinful in that they increase our distance from God, or, they result from our distance from God.
Repenting and returning is not just about ceasing sin, turning from sinful activity. Repentance and return happens in seeking, accepting, inhabiting the Kingdom of God proclaimed by God in Jesus.
It is at hand, that Kingdom. God’s kingdom is not something mythical, not other worldly, not something we need to wait for until the end of days… No. The kingdom of God is something far more commonplace that that: The kingdom of God is simply how things are supposed to be. We know how things are supposed to be, we can smell it, we know it when we see it. See the quiet joy of a mother nursing an infant. Gaze at a mighty river endlessly coursing or a beautiful sunset or a sea otter floating peacefully in the waves. We know what is right and good and joyful when we see it. We know what to do. We know how to be. We know to be ourselves as God intended us to be, but goodness, it is hard to stay on that path.
Well, it is for me, anyway. Besides a small percentage of severely broken people with deep pathologies, we know the difference between right and wrong, truly; we know the difference between good and evil, between what we should do and what we should not do, how we should conduct ourselves in the world and how we should not. Sure we have lots to learn because much of the world is not as it seems and is not as we have been taught, but in our hearts we know light from dark. We know when we are on the wrong side. We do. But if only it were as easy as knowing. We must repent and return, constantly.
One of the key understandings of repentance and returning is making things as they are supposed to be. Now that is exceedingly hard to do in the context of a society (if not a civilization) founded on principles directly not in line with the way things are supposed to be, but it is possible. We can repent and return. We can take baby steps towards the kingdom, which, brings us back to the matter of compost.
What do we have to discard of ourselves on the compost heap of existence? What in our lives, our beings do we need to excise and purify in the mighty 150 degree furnace of a good compost system? This is a way to approach repentance. This is a way to understand our return to the kingdom of God.
Is this that unlike God’s revelation to Moses on Mt. Horeb? “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters… So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” This is not the way it is supposed to be. Empire. Slavery. The subjugation of a people under harsh taskmasters. This is not the kingdom of God, and here, God intervenes, and ordains a man; an orphan, a refugee, a survivor, God ordains Moses to go down to Pharaoh and lead God’s people to the promised land.
The trouble is, we don’t go from bondage to the promised land in a single bound. This is the journey of Lent. This is the journey of repentance and return. Because like those Galileans slaughtered in the midst of worship, or the workers killed as the tower of Siloam collapsed, the end often comes unexpectedly. We have today to work on our relationships with each other and with God. Repenting and returning is a daily process, a daily reconciliation of the way things are supposed to be. It is no less than a daily practice of envisioning and realizing the kingdom of God. We have our work cut out for us. Dig at those roots and add good compost. Think on God’s Kingdom. Repent and Return. AMEN.